BARTOK: Complete String Quartets – Vegh Quartet
Music & Arts CD-1169 (2 mono CDs), 75:43, 78:04 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
Some years ago, I took a Form-and-Analysis course at SUNY Binghamton with a Professor Waldbauer, son of the distinguished quartet-leader Imre Waldbauer. The Waldbauers had been personal friends and colleagues of Bela Bartok and of another noted Hungarian, Bela Lugosi. Bartok, as it turns out, considered the Beethoven string quartets bedtime reading. The Vegh Quartet’s readings of the Bartok cycle date from EMI 1954; they were to inscribe the set again, with the same personnel, in 1972 stereo. Relatively stingy with their vibrato, the ensemble maintained some 19th Century mannerisms in their use of portamento, although their sinewy, muscular style negates any tendencies to sentimentality.
The Op. 7 String Quartet begins where Beethoven’s C# Minor, Op. 131 ends, with an eerie duet for the two violins, and only gradually do the four instruments ever converge in massive harmony. The melodic lines of the quasi-waltz second movement derive from the opening movement, with its drooping figures, and the tension does not relent. Paul Szabo’s drum-like cello and Sandor Zoeldy’s second violin fire up the accelerandi, and there are moments of feverish melody, but the tenor remains labyrinthine, Kafkaesque. The three upper strings and a cello cadenza usher in the Introduction, until the second violin’s high E palpitates us into the dance-fugato of the last movement. The Vegh have had this whole piece in one monster grip, and they spin out the shadows with firm inevitability.
The Third Quartet (1927) is another condensed response to Beethoven, but here cross-fertilized by some Schoenberg aesthetics. Bartok’s inner ear has become more exotic, and he creates terse, pounding phrases placed in extreme registers and implemented by ponticello, harmonics and virtuoso pizzicato effects. This is musical Kandinsky. Drones, col legno effects, and trills often suggest some pre-Cambrian landscape, a world frenzily searching for form. The screaming chord before the Recapitulazione is primal therapy. The cure does not last, since the Coda whirls the harmonic brew in a furious crucible where our sensibilities are pulverized.
The Fifth Quartet (1934), composed in one month, testifies to Bartok’s fascination with arch-form. Eccentric rhythm proves the thesis of this piece. The ethos belongs to the first two piano concertos. The middle movement of the five, a Scherzo marked Alla bulgarese, is a folk dance in 9/8, but the varied accents attest to an earthy past. The constant repetition on B-flat in the opening movement, the application of close, buzzing stretti, force the Vegh to attend to entries and dynamic levels in close detail, so as not to smear the lines. The weirdness of sounds in the second and fourth movements proves noteworthy: Sandor Zoeldy has some tremolos in the second movement that project against the whispers of the other voices. Zoeldy shines again in the fifth movement, where in the midst of wild dancing, he appears alone, practicing a simplistic scale passage that mocks the movement’s opening motif. The Andante gives off eerie pizzicati and eddies of notes, then a stormy climax in which Sandor Vegh’s violin and Paul Szabo’s cello collide on opposite ends of the musical spectrum.
The Second Quartet, Op. 17 (1917) lets us focus on the talents of violist Georges Janzer as he works with Sandor Vegh; sometimes, as in the first movement, in parallel octaves. Szabo’s cello has a repeated riff that plays quasi-parlando then arioso just before the recapitulation. Janzer’s contribution will be felt again in the Sixth Quartet. The five-note, hearty theme rings out expressively. The zany whirlwind of the Allegro molto capriccioso might have debts to Beethoven’s Op. 127. The dynamic applications, however, are pure Bartok, with sizzling, chromatic leaps and stretches, pizzicati, then a muted Prestissimo which foils the melodic languor that intrudes itself throughout this furious movement. The heavy resignation that permeates the remaining two movements the Vegh Quartet communicates with tight-lipped fervor, a series of sighs that may well lament the state of the world that produced Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”
While not the longest of the quartets, the Fourth (1928) is the most virtuosic, again with debts to Beethoven’s Op. 74, but with a sardonic edge and experimentalism entirely Bartok’s. We hear the influence of Debussy, especially the Cello Sonata, in the eccentric combination of strumming and arpeggiando chords. The succession of half-steps in the opening, plucked movement turns out to be thematically binding throughout, with the brunt of the melodic burden placed on the cello. The Vegh must play in ever-accelerated bursts of color in both the second and fourth movements. The constant application of glissandi, slides, creates problems of its own, deftly handled. The fulcrum of this strange piece is the central Non troppo lento, whose own, internal structure plays like a mirror. Amidst all of the breathlessness of this quartet, this middle movement draws in a long moment of Nature for rejuvenation.
The indication Mesto opens each of the four movements of the Sixth Quartet (1939), a plaintive and grotesque series of emotions, juxtaposed with colossal technical skill. Each movement attempts to break out of the severe limits of its respective Mesto in its own way. The second movement tries to march out but often limps instead. Drunken cello versus banjo-viola is a wild touch. The Burletta, like the Marcia, reveals Debussy’s influences, but the humor chuckles strictly from the gallows in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale is close. The Vegh play the last movement of the last quartet with stoical reserve. The nations of the world lie “sequestered in their hate,” to quote Auden. Janzer and Szabo will utter the final whimpers. Bartok would soon leave for America, and Europe would soon be rubble. The Vegh Quartet – formerly The New Hungarian Quartet – traverses both worlds: the collapsing Europe and the hope of a new life, with fitful fevers.
— Gary Lemco